Arrest of Turkish doctors highlights climate of fear

Turkish police detained the board of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) – the professional body representing 80 percent of the country’s doctors - for calling for peace in response to Turkey’s air and ground offensive into Syria.

The fate of the doctors who called for peace followed a pattern familiar to those who have followed the case of Academics for Peace. First, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan targeted the group during a speech, calling them “terrorist-lovers”. Then, the association began receiving threats on social media. Next, prosecutors and police stepped in to begin the legal process against them. If this pattern continues, the detentions will soon be followed with a government decree dismissing the doctors from their jobs at state universities or hospitals.

Social media posts critical of Turkey’s nearly two-week-old military incursion into the Kurdish-held Syrian enclave of Afrin have also led to numerous detentions. Police have detained 311 people who were critical of the Afrin operation on charges of making terrorist propaganda between Jan. 22 and 29, the Interior Ministry said.

Apart from a few opposition members of parliament and labour leaders, there has been no public outcry over the detention of the doctors. Everyone else approves of the clampdown on critics, or else remains silent.  The approval or the silence towards such blatant restrictions on freedom of expression and such swift use of the judiciary to silence critics is something to be worried about.

It is not normal that 11 board members of the country’s top medical association should be detained for calling for peace. It is not normal that more than 300 people across the country should be detained for critical social media posts. But unfortunately, a majority in the country has come to see the arrests as normal. The normalisation of such transgressions of basic rights, especially accompanied with a nationalist fervor, hints that Turkey is on a trajectory all too familiar to scholars of political violence.

There is extensive academic literature on how political violence happens. One line of research emphasises the role of fear. As scholars David A. Lake and Donald Rothchild wrote:

“Conflict is most often caused by collective fears of the future. As groups begin to fear for their safety, dangerous and difficult-to-resolve strategic dilemmas arise that contain within them the potential for tremendous violence. … Ethnic activists and political entrepreneurs, operating within groups, build upon these fears of insecurity and polarise the society. Political memories and emotions also magnify these anxieties, driving groups further apart.  Together, these between-group and within-group strategic interactions produce a toxic brew of distrust and suspicion that can explode into murderous violence.”

Based on past cases of political violence such as Germany and former Yugoslavia, we know that when fear and anxieties about the future are instrumentalised by leaders to fuel nationalist feelings and polarise society, political violence becomes likely.  The current reactions – or lack of thereof – in Turkish society in the aftermath of Afrin operation indicate that Turkey has become too similar to those past cases which have ended up with political violence.

At this point, a military operation into a neighbouring country is named “Olive Branch,” those speaking out in favour of peace are charged with terrorism, and doctors who take an oath to protect human life are targeted, threatened, and detained as traitors.  In addition, anti-American and anti-Kurdish sentiments are rampant, fuelled by the government and Erdoğan himself.

Sadly, the status quo in Turkey bears many commonalities with the Nazi era in Germany. If history and the literature on political violence are good indicators, the political ground is fertile for increased violence and massacres. It may happen in Afrin or in Pendik, a suburb of Istanbul, I cannot know, but it is a real possibility. We need to be aware of this possibility and we need to be vigilant in resisting the manipulations that make it more likely.

References for those interested in academic work on the relationship between fear and political violence:

  • Lake and Rothchild. 1996. Containing fear: The origins and management of ethnic conflict. International Security 21 (fall): 41-75.
  • Rationality of Fear De Figueiredo and Weingast. 1999. The rationality of fear: Political opportunism and ethnic conflict. In Civil Wars, Insecurity, and Intervention, eds. Walter and Snyder. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 261-302.
  • David A. Lake and Donald Rothchild, eds., 1998. The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict: Fear, Diffusion, and Escalation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.
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